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Behind Closed Doors: An Analysis of Indoor Sex Work in New York City
Sex Workers Project at the Urban Justice Center

Sex workers live under the daily threat of arrest, deportation, and violence. These dangers are compounded by the stigma, isolation, and invisibility associated with their work. Behind Closed Doors: An Analysis of Indoor Sex Work in New York City, a report from the Sex Workers Project (SWP) at the Urban Justice Center (UJC), examines the quality of life issues that indoor sex workers face and the impact of law enforcement approaches on this population in New York City.

New York City's quality of life initiatives have always caught prostitutes in their net. However, police operations that result in arrests only serve to destabilize the lives of many sex workers who are members of the working poor, and jeopardize other legal employment. This aggressive policing comes at an extremely high cost to the public, and is a waste of valuable public resources. Stringent policing creates an environment of fear and isolation that prevents sex workers from coming forward when they are victims of violence and other crimes.

The SWP aims to have the City do two things: ensure that all violence against sex workers is taken seriously by law enforcement authorities; and offer in-depth and appropriate services that lead to long-term solutions. Any process for discussion around the problems of police and violence must include the voices of sex workers themselves in order to effectively and productively address the needs of sex workers and the community.

Key findings include:

Sex Workers are a Diverse Group: The report includes interviews with 52 sex workers who work independently or for brothels, escort agencies, dungeons, and private clubs. The respondents were ethnically diverse and included women, transgender women, and men. Sex workers interviewed ranged in age from 19 to 54. Some were doing well financially, while the majority were members of the working poor. In fact, 67% of respondents got involved with sex work because they were unable to find other work which provided a living wage. Previous jobs included waitressing, retail, and domestic work.

Violence Against Sex Workers: Forty-six percent of sex workers experienced violence in the course of their work, and 42% had been threatened or beaten for being a sex worker. Additionally, 14% reported violence at the hands of the police, and 16% encountered sexual situations with the police. Many people are unsympathetic to prostitutes. However, this level of violence is unacceptable, even if they are engaging in unlawful activity - everyone has the right to be free from violence.

Isolation, Stigma, and Lack of Services: The unlawful nature of most sex work often results in extreme isolation, which serves as a barrier to accessing legal, financial, educational, and other necessary services. Respondents feared arrest and its consequences, and expressed a need for peer support and substantive services, which were unavailable to them. Proponents of arrest for sex workers sometimes argue that arrest is a gateway to services. However, this philosophy does not reflect the experiences of sex workers in this sample. Arrests did not lead to the provision of useful and appropriate services for them.

Sex Workers and Migration: Forty percent of sex workers interviewed were born outside the U.S. and its territories. Immigrants without work permits saw sex work as their best economically viable option. Eight percent of the report's respondents were trafficked into the country for prostitution. The trafficked women told of being threatened, beaten, raped, and having their money withheld by the traffickers.

For more information, please contact Juhu Thukral, SWP Director, at 646/602.5690 or jthukral@urbanjustice.org. The full report can be found at http://www.sexworkersproject.org or http://www.urbanjustice.org/publications/index.html.